Rational reconstruction

Rational reconstruction (hereinafter, RR) will be understood in this essay in the sense used by Imre Lakatos (1978, ch. 2) in reference to the history of science. According to Lakatos, RR is equivalent to what he calls internal history: a putatively diachronic account of what counts as "growth of knowledge" or "progress in science" - as "progress" is adjudicated by the particular normative methodology favored by the historian. Lakatos's external history is confined to social and economic conjuncture, the tastes, ideologies, and metaphysics of the scientists, and other circumstances that "explain the residual non-rational factors." Thus "external history is irrelevant for the understanding of science" (Lakatos, 1978, pp. 118, 102).

It is apparent that there must be at least as many rational reconstructions of any particular episode as there are methodologies. Thus an historian who accepts the criteria of scientific progress proposed by "conventionalism" will offer a very different internal history of some important scientific innovation from that of another historian whose criteria are those specified by Lakatos's own methodology of "scientific research programmes." It also appears that those who accept Thomas Kuhn's account of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) must disqualify themselves from attempting any kind of RR. For "In Kuhn's view there can be no logic, but only psychology of discovery": hence "scientific revolution is irrational, a matter for mob psychology" (Lakatos, 1978, pp. 90, 91; italics in original).

Some historians of economic thought (e.g., Blaug, 1990) have preferred Richard Rorty's seemingly more open-ended usage of "rational reconstruction" (never clearly defined) to identify one of the four "genres" of the historiography of philosophy; the others being "historical reconstruction" and "Geistesgeshichte" (literally, a study of the "spirit" of the times) each of which, like RR, is legitimate and useful, and "doxography" (praise of dead philosophers), which is neither (Rorty, 1984). For Mark Blaug, RR corresponds to his own "economic theory in retrospect," which he described as "absolutist" history in contrast with "relativist" history - the latter being "almost the same" as Rorty's "historical reconstruction" (Blaug, 1997, pp. 1-2, 7-8). But in fact it more closely resembles Lakatos's "external history." Rorty himself, pretending to believe that modern philosophers know and understand some things that the greatest of their predecessors did not, defended RR as "self-consciously letting our own philosophical views dictate the terms in which to describe the dead" (Rorty, 1984, p. 50). By doing this, Rorty claimed, we are "able to see the history of our race as a long conversational interchange":

We need to think that, in philosophy as in science, the mighty mistaken dead look down from heaven at our recent successes, and are happy to find that their mistakes have been corrected. (p. 51)

It would appear from this that Rorty believes that there can be and is "progress" in philosophy, that criteria exist to determine what counts as progress, and hence that we can reconstruct parts at least of the "long conversational interchange" in terms "dictated by our own philosophical views." To this extent, Rorty's fuzzier usage of RR is congruent with, if not identical to, Lakatos's more rigorously specified definition.

The reason for preferring Lakatos's definition with reference to the history of economic thought (hereinafter, HET) lies in an obvious difference between the "conversation" of economists and that of philosophers. For Rorty was less than wholly serious in his claim that there can be "progress" in philosophy. "We hesitate [to say that Aristotle or Leibniz or Descartes were ignorant of what now count as 'facts' in philosophy] because we have colleagues who are themselves ignorant of such facts, and whom we courteously describe not as 'ignorant', but as 'holding different philosophical views'" (Rorty, 1984, pp. 49-50). It is at least as plausible, therefore, to regard philosophy as a continual recycling of old ideas, and none the worse for that. Although there is undoubtedly some element of this in economics too (Waterman, 1997), it is obvious that economists have a far more highly developed sense of "progress" or "growth of knowledge" in their discipline than do philosophers. Theories are formulated, models constructed, and hypotheses tested in a way that closely resembles the method of the natural sciences. Most economists believe that they can explain a wider range of social phenomena with modern theory than was possible for Smith and Ricardo, Walras and Edgeworth, or Wicksell and Keynes. And because what motivates many is the desire to produce knowledge that is "useful" in that it can be applied to improve public policy and legislation, any serious doubt about that possibility - either among economists themselves or among those who pay for their services - would drastically reduce, if not eliminate, the profession. Philosophy, however, thrives on self-doubt.

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